- - Monday, July 16, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO — The California Supreme Court on Monday tossed out the death sentence of a man convicted of murdering rock guitarist Dave Navarro’s mother and her friend nearly 30 years ago — a ruling that could affect the cases of Scott Peterson and other death-row inmates.

The unanimous court said the trial judge presiding over the trial of John Riccardi improperly dismissed a prospective juror because of her conflicting written responses in a questionnaire asking her views of the death penalty.

The court said the judge was required to delve deeper into the juror’s death-penalty views and determine if she could impose the death sentence if she thought prosecutors proved their case.

Peterson and a few other California death-row inmates are appealing on similar grounds.

Peterson was convicted of killing his wife, Laci, who was 8 months pregnant with their son, and dumping her body in San Francisco Bay on Christmas Eve 2002. Investigators think Peterson either strangled or suffocated his wife.

Peterson has always maintained his innocence and claims in his appeal filed earlier this month that the trial judge presiding over his 2004 trial wrongly dismissed 13 jurors who said they opposed the death penalty but could follow the law and impose it if warranted.

In 1984, a narrowly divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled that reversal of the death penalty is automatic when potential jurors are dismissed because of their written answers to questions about their views on capital punishment.

MINNESOTA

Drought grows to cover widest area since 1956

MINNEAPOLIS — The drought gripping the U.S. is the widest since 1956, according to new data released Monday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Fifty-five percent of the continental U.S. was in a moderate to extreme drought by the end of June, NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C., said in its monthly State of the Climate drought report. That’s the largest percentage since December 1956, when 58 percent of the country was covered by drought.

This summer, 80 percent of the U.S. is abnormally dry, and the report said the drought expanded in the West, Great Plains and Midwest last month with the 14th-warmest and 10th-driest June on record.

The nation’s corn and soybean belt has been especially hard hit over the past three months, the report said. That region has experienced its seventh-warmest and 10th-driest April-to-June period.

The report is based on a data set going back to 1895 called the Palmer Drought Index, which feeds into the widely watched and more detailed U.S. Drought Monitor. It reported last week that 61 percent of the continental U.S. was in a moderate to exceptional drought.

ILLINOIS

3 teens charged in man’s fatal beating

CHICAGO — A judge has denied bail for three Chicago teenagers accused of taking part in the beating death of a disabled man and posting a video of the attack on Facebook.

During a hearing Monday, Nicholas Ayala, 17, and Anthony Malcolm, 18, were denied bail. Investigators say the two took turns recording the beating with a cellphone. The third suspect, Malik Jones, 16, was denied bail Sunday.

The three are charged with first-degree murder in last week’s death of Delfino Mora, 62.

Authorities allege Mr. Jones struck Mr. Mora in the face as Mr. Mora was collecting cans in an alley. Mr. Mora fell and struck his head on the concrete. The father of 12 died the next day.

Authorities say Mr. Mora didn’t have full use of his right arm because of a construction accident.

FLORIDA

Teen convicted in school beating case

FORT LAUDERDALE — A jury on Monday convicted a teenager of attempted murder in a vicious kicking and stomping attack on a girl outside a middle school in 2010, rejecting his claims of insanity.

The jury deliberated just over four hours before returning the guilty verdict in the trial of Wayne Treacy in the attack on then-15-year-old Josie Lou Ratley. Treacy, 17, could get up to 50 years in prison for the conviction of attempted first-degree murder with a deadly weapon — the steel-toed boots he used to nearly crush the girl’s skull.

The crux of the case was whether jurors would buy Treacy’s defense that he was not responsible because he suffered from severe post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from his brother’s suicide a few months before. The March 2010 attack happened after Miss Ratley enraged Treacy by sending him a taunting text message about his dead brother.

Experts on both sides agreed Treacy has PTSD. But prosecution psychiatrists testified that Treacy clearly knew right from wrong and understood the consequences of his actions.

Circuit Judge David Haimes said he would schedule sentencing at a later date.

OHIO

Investigators: Teen suspected in drug ring

LEBANON — A 17-year-old high school student was at the center of a high-grade marijuana distribution ring that was raking in as much as $20,000 a month, sheriff’s investigators in southwestern Ohio said Monday.

The yearlong investigation culminated in the arrest of the teen and seven adults, as well as the seizure of more than 600 hydroponically grown marijuana plants with a street value of around $3 million, the Warren County Drug Task Force said.

The student, who was not named by the sheriff’s office, will face charges in juvenile court. The teen had $6,000 in cash in his bedroom closet when officers arrived with a search warrant, sheriff’s officials said.

“He was selling to six other people who were kind of like his lieutenants,” drug task force Commander John Burke said. “Then they were distributing the drugs to other high school students.”

The juvenile told authorities he was not selling marijuana or conducting his business on the grounds of the high school, according to Hamilton County Prosecutor David Fornshell.

“There were strict orders not to sell at (the school) because you would get caught and the punishment would be severe,” Mr. Fornshell said at a news conference.

He said the 17-year-old had been dealing drugs since he was at least 15. Through him, undercover investigators were able to trace the supply of drugs to three different individuals.

Mr. Fornshell described the teen as seeming “like someone who’d be in a church youth group or honor program.”

“He clearly had a high level of intelligence, but it was very misguided,” he said.

From wire dispatches and staff reports